Shantaram: A Review

April 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

I don’t know what I was doing in 2004 that made me miss the reviews of Shantaram the magnum opus of Gregory David Roberts, but someone recommended it to me recently and I spent the last month reading it…all 936 pages.

At first, you think this book is about a person who has escaped to Bombay (now Mumbai) India circa 1980 from prison in Australia. Then you think it’s about India itself — the slums, the prisons, the drugs. Then you think it’s a love story. Then you think it’s about the criminal underworld. Then you think it’s about the war in Afghanistan (the one that’s ostensibly between the Afghanis and the Russians, but is really only the first part of World War III. Are we currently in the second or third stage of that war? I’m not sure.) Then. Then. Then you realize it’s all of the above and more.

I can’t imagine spending 13 years writing a book, but then again if it was my life and my life was anything close to the life led by Gregory David Roberts, it wouldn’t matter how long it took, nor the price that had to be paid in the writing.

How did Roberts learn to write so well? Did he really experience all the things his main character experiences? How else could he describe the slums of Bombay, village life in India, the mountains of Afghanistan, etc. if he didn’t experience them?

On Goodreads, Shantarm has had 21,000 ratings and almost 4,000 reviews. So I guess people know about this book. Where does it stand in the literary pantheon? Alongside Magic Mountain, Ulysses, Exodus, Look Homeward Angel? Yes, that high on the shelf.

Originally conceived as the first of four autobiographical novels, Shantaram came out in 2003. The second book was supposed to have been released in 2011, but it has yet to be released. It’ll be interesting to see if it matches the first to any extent.

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